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Truth is always in style

| Monday, April 15, 2019

In reporting, the news journalists have an overarching principle: seek out and report the truth. The main way to uncover the truth is to assemble relevant facts and convey them to the audience. If enough facts are reported supporting a consistent view of a subject — coalescing into a clear pattern — then the resulting pattern outlines an image of truth. The individual facts are not the truth in themselves, but each “fact” must be objectively measured and assessed for its value in contributing to an overall image of the truth.  

Here’s an example: it is a fact more than 95% of professionals working on climate science accept the reality of global warming and believe mankind is a primary contributor to the recent rise in average annual temperatures. It is also a fact a relatively small minority of climate scientists question this conclusion and an even smaller percentage of scientists doubt a rise in temperatures even exists. If you picture the scientific beliefs on global warming as a pizza cut into 32 slices, the man-made-warming group would consume about 31 slices, the not-man-made-warming group would share one slice and absolute skeptics would have some cheese and pepperoni stuck to the box.

You can find ‘news’ sites where all sides of an issue are reported as equally valid. In reality, not all views of an issue are equally valid or substantiated, regardless of the appeal a contrarian view may present for economic, social or political reasons. Informed minds may indeed differ in areas where critical data are missing or incomplete — e.g., cosmological theories about multiverses — but where the settled and readily measured consensus points in only one direction, such as with the reality of global warming and climate change, reporting the issue as open to debate verges on the irresponsible. 

Racist speech inhabits an area where journalists often have hedged an accurate characterization to avoid labeling a speaker as racist. This approach makes sense where a person’s words may be unfortunate or suspicious at best (e.g., describing a penny-pinching person’s approach), but too much reporting provides an acceptable rationale for language unmistakably racist in nature. An honest and professional reporter should avoid squishy and timid euphemisms such as “racially motivated,” “racially incendiary,” and “racially tinged.” Given the army of partisan devotees ready to feign fiery indignation at the slightest hint their favored leader is a racist — and not just someone who repeatedly says racist things, as if there is a real difference — many writers are disinclined to properly label racist speech or actions.

Journalists have always been quick to point out an unfortunate gaffe and professional politicians often welcome the opportunity to apologize, explain their true feelings and use the story as a learning moment for themselves and others. The current challenge in reporting on the non-stop barrage of pointed and purposeful hate speech pouring from some politicians is avoiding the trap of using soft reporting to hide the racist elephant in the room. If you are reporting a politician is racist are you also characterizing his or her followers, by implication, as racists? Most journalists would be disinclined to go so far, especially since the politician may be the only person officially “on record” as making racist statements. This was the mistake made by Hillary Clinton when she characterized a certain subset of Trump supporters as “deplorables,” however appropriate or not the term may have been in individual circumstances. Persons support political candidates for a variety of reasons and one can only hope racism was the deciding factor for an unenlightened few.

Given the sheer volume of racist statements during the Trump era, journalists have been forced to dig deep into the bag of weasel words to avoid recourse to the “r” word. Last year, Julia Craven of HuffPost collected examples of equivocating reporters. To cite a few: New York Times (“disparaging,” ”racially tinged,” ”vulgar”); Washington Post (”racially charged,” “crude reference,” “racially incendiary,” ”disparaging,” “expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway” ); Boston Globe (“the vulgarity,” ”crass epithet,” ”derogatory,” ”crass denigrations”); and the Associated Press (”bluntly vulgar language,” “accused of racism,” “contemptuous blanket description,” “charges that the president is racist”). 

Recent revisions to the AP Stylebook still counsel restraint in calling out individuals as racists, noting “It’s far harder to match the complexity of a person to a definition or label then it is a statement or action.” Accordingly, if actions and comments are undoubtedly racist, the stylebook advises journalists to be truthful and straightforward in reporting those facts without resorting to speculation about motives or convictions. The stylebook advises when using “racist” as an adjective to describe comments or events; reporters and editors “need not [examine] the motivation of the person who spoke or acted, which is a separate issue that may not be related to how the statement or action itself can be characterized.” Of course, writers of editorials and opinion pieces are free to explore a speaker’s obviously racist motivations and inclinations.

Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, testified before Congress about his boss’s often racist behavior.

“While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, [Trump] commented that only black people could live that way,” Cohen testified. “And he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”

Are these racist statements? Absolutely, and journalists would have been dishonest to report them as anything else. The AP Stylebook may have finally, if belatedly, left the realm of flat-earth supporters by acknowledging it is acceptable to accurately identify racist statements. Now, if only the AP Stylebook could help journalists figure out what to call someone who tells innumerable lies

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

Contact Raymond